Rock stars have fleets of superstar cars, but few can say they personally designed them. Enter James Hetfield, lead singer and guitarist of the world’s greatest metal band Metallica. A lifelong car enthusiast, the wealthy Californian has invested 14 years of his time and money collecting and building some of the most ambitious rebuilds and built from scratch hot rods in the automotive world.
His fantasy car collection is a veritable art collection, so it’s no wonder the Petersen Automotive Museum donated 10 of Hetfield’s finest custom automobiles.
Notable vehicles include the 1948 Jaguar “Black Pearl”; the 1934 Packard “Aquarius”; the 1953 Buick Skylark “Skyscraper”; the 1937 Lincoln Zephyr “VooDoo Priest”; the 1936 “Slow Burn” Auburn; the 1936 Ford “Iron Fist”; the 1937 Ford Crimson Ghost coupe; and the 1932 Ford Roadster “Blackjack”.
“Like his music, James Hetfield’s car collection is a reflection of his creativity as an artist,” said Terry L. Karges, executive director of the Petersen Automotive Museum. “A tribute to classic silhouettes with a touch of defiance of convention, each car on display in ‘Reclaimed Rust’ tells a unique story. We are very excited to present this collection in a rock star-sized exhibition.”
THIS EXCEPTIONAL COLLECTION IS
This stuff wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for the brilliant eye and mind of (Custom Car Builder) Rick Dore. And there’s another builder involved, Scott Mumford (of Fastland Garage). His eye and hard work were essential.
WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO GIVE YOUR COLLECTION TO PETERSEN?
It’s the climax. It’s the best place to have your vehicles. Rick Dore (Hetfield’s custom car builder partner) is damn proud to see his creations in this place, as am I. This stuff wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for the brilliant eye and mind of (custom car builder) Rick Dore. And there’s another builder involved, Scott Mumford (of Fastland Garage). His eye and hard work were essential. And the cars weren’t good for me, they just sat in my garage. What touches me the most is that they stay together. They belong together. I didn’t want to auction them off and watch them all decay. It’s a collection. It’s very similar to the Metallica albums that we put out. Music shapes my life and that’s exactly what these cars have been doing for 14 years. I think it’s great that they stay together and tour together and more people get to see them and young people get inspired by them and then they’ll call Rick Dore.
YOUR FATHER ALWAYS HAS A PROJECT GOING IN THE GARAGE. HOW DID THIS AFFECT YOU?
It was a fun place to explore. It was a fun part of the house that the rest of the family didn’t know much about. Me and my dad would be tinkering with something there. He had grown up fatherless and was raised by his grandfather and I think he was very neglected so he wanted to learn about things – what it means to be a man – and all he knew was how to do it himself to do. He didn’t have many mentors, so he tied his own flies, worked on cars, and deer carcasses were often hung. Lots of things to discover while learning to be a man. It was a man cave.
HAVE YOU PARTICIPATED?
Yeah, I’ve always wondered what’s going on in there. It was before YouTube, so that’s where he learned from hands-on experience — and failed over and over again until he got it right.
HOW OLD WERE YOU WHEN YOU LEARNED TO DRIVE?
Hm, that was about five years ago. I am still working on it. (laughs) No, growing up I couldn’t wait to drive. I had a high school buddy who got a car before anyone else. It was a Duster and we were all jealous. I just hung out with the guys who had cars to get around and hear the noise. It was cooler than my skateboard.
WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST CAR?
I borrowed my first car from my brother, a ’67 Barracuda Fastback. It didn’t taste good! But… I crashed it into a tree within the first few weeks. I fixed it – well a friend of mine did. There’s something called Bondo. (laughs) Much cheaper than in stores. It had air shocks in the back and I would jack that thing up, but I didn’t adjust it because it was my brother’s car. From then on, in the days of the Chevy Luv Truck, I got one and you could easily customize it, so I did. From then on I tinkered with everything I could get my hands on.
WHAT WAS THE FIRST CAR WHICH YOU THOUGHT “I CAN REALLY CHANGE THIS CAR”?
Besides the barracuda? Because I really changed that. (laughs) Well we were on tour and a friend of mine was working on the tour, I just love the Tri-Fives. (1955, 1956 and 1957 Chevys). I love the 55 and he had a pearl on one, that’s how it started. It was a simple car that drove very fast. I installed a motor that was way too big for it. When we were making an album and we were frustrated, I (the producer) would give Bob Rock the keys and say, “Here, blow off some steam.” The hoops would come back soon.
WHAT INFLUENCES DOES YOUR CAR CULTURE HAVE?
Growing up in Downey, California I had two older half brothers and there was a hot rod scene on the corner where the very first McDonald’s was. Mostly Tri-Fives, but my brother had a Volkswagen (winces). You go with what you can afford. I liked all habits that made noise. Anything that bothered my parents.
WHEN MUSIC COME INTO YOUR LIFE, HOW DID THAT CHANGE WHAT YOU CREATIVELY DO WITH CARS? IS THERE AN EXCESS?
volume and disturbs my parents. Growing up, music was an important part of our family. My brother played drums and there were musical instruments in the house all the time so I could play around with these electric toys. Then some tough childhood things happened. My dad left, my mom died, I moved in with my brother, graduated from high school — and music was my friend. It talked to me, it talked about me, and it wouldn’t leave me, so music became my best friend.
WHAT WAS THE FIRST CAR YOU BUILT?
Before I came to Beatniks Car Club, I got myself a ’53 Buick Special Cabriolet and turned it into a sled myself (custom made from a junk car). Then I had a friend fix it and drive it straight. Like my father, I was totally into failure. I had never welded before so I learned how to do it. I was lucky enough to be able to afford some of these toys.
WAS THE BEATNIKS CAR CLUB KEY TO YOUR SKILLS AS A CAR BUILDER?
Definitive. They’re a bunch of artists who didn’t really seem to fit into the world, and they started their own car club. At that time I was looking for a family and that was my family for a while. Custom culture definitely inspired me. The bubble cars and Big Daddy Roth stuff, fiberglass artists and rat rods, but it was mostly sleds, white walls and a few tattooed sleeves.
WHAT WAS NEXT?
The ’70s were all about muscle cars. Loud, fast. The beatniks were very different: light, slow and deep in the weeds. I got into the beatniks because I drove a crazy 23 bucket. It had a glass body, so I was pretty much driving a motor around on rails. Pretty dangerous, but that got me into the beatniks. Then I started seeing all the beauty they were doing with Rick Dore’s influence and taking me through the car shows. Amazing works of art. He was the one who enabled me to get to the next level. I was in a really great place financially because this band that I’m in was doing pretty well and we were able to join forces and create art that nobody had done before. I got pretty good at Photoshop and drew cars that existed in my head – how to shop them, how to hack them. We experimented with color, chrome and brass on the grill, which was a whole new avenue for us. There really are a lot of people who put their passion and craftsmanship into every car. We’re just good at finding the right people.
HOW DID YOU CHOOSE THE VEHICLES FOR YOUR CUSTOM DESIGNS?
Well, at some point I had cars in my 40s and they were all projects… that were going to be. So I’ve thinned it down to what we think are the most important cars in the hot rod world. The ’32 Ford, the Skylark and a couple of cars we invented – the Aquarius and the Black Pearl – which are hand-built from the ground up from a drawing. It blew my mind.
YOUR CUSTOMS ITEMS ARE REAL WORKS OF ART.
They are, but it was very important that they drive because these are the cars I used to take my kids to school…although it was always difficult to get over the speed bump in the parking lot. For school fundraisers, I made a donation so that I would drive the winner’s children to school in the hot rod of their choice for a month. That was always fun.